This post contains major plot spoilers for The Last of Us Part II, please read at your own discretion. ..
As I stated in my review for The Last of Us Part II, it is an ambitious and evocative masterpiece that pushes the envelope in video game storytelling and character perception. Many do not agree with this statement, which is perfectly fine and valid. I absolutely loved the game and if you did not, then that is your opinion which you are entitled to. I would like to address some common criticisms I have seen swimming throughout social media, in hopes of providing explanation and perhaps perspective to those who dislike the game. Again, this post contains heavy spoilers for the major plot and themes of The Last of Us Part II, so consider this a final warning.
Joel is either perceived as a hero or good character that did not deserve to die or die in this manner.
The Last of Us Part II deals with the consequences of Joel’s actions in an unprecedented manner as his decision comes back to haunt him. Regardless of your perception of Joel, the reasoning behind his death was logically sound. Whether it be the Firefly massacre at St. Mary’s hospital, his experienced understanding and execution of torture and murder, or any other atrocity he committed for survival, there are dozens upon dozens of actions that paint Joel in a negative light. Ellie’s sense of targeted revenge for Abby may feel justified to the character and the player, but by attributing the same logic, Abby’s justifications would be just as valid for Joel. If other characters in The Last of Us deserve death for their actions, there is no reason why Joel would be an exception.
Joel was constantly on high alert in the original The Last of Us and he would never trust or follow Abby, let alone tell them his name. This is a departure to the character established in the original.
It makes perfect sense why Joel let his guard down. After 20 years of killing, sleeping with one eye open, and essentially being a monster, he was able to become “Joel” again. He was surrounded by people who loved, trusted and respected him. He had 4 years of peace and quiet, and was finally given the chance to settle down and let his guard down. He took on hobbies and was able to have a proper, paternal relationship. He could be human again. It was a natural evolution of his character given the environment. Additionally, the people in Jackson – Joel included- were known for helping other survivors and taking them in if wanted or necessary, so it was not out of character for Joel to rescue Abby given the situation. Tommy was also the one who revealed Joel’s name to Abby, not Joel himself. Joel also told both Henry and Sam his name in the original The Last of Us, so this is not new development. Lastly, there was also a massive hoard of Infected chasing them through a blizzard. Joel followed Abby because the alternative was freezing to death in the blizzard or die trying to get back to Jackson before the infected dispersed.
The Last of Us Part II is a story of revenge and Ellie does not kill Abby in the end.
Killing Abby would bring no end to the cycle of violence, bestowing a false sense of justice and satisfaction, and would further cement Ellie as a villain of the story. Ellie’s final change of heart is her one true moment of redemption, finally removing her from this path of darkness.
Ellie’s obsession with revenge leaves her as an empty shell of her former self, losing everything she loves and cherishes, and destroying herself in the process. However, while she may not be able to forgive Abby or move on, she is willing to try as she did with Joel, retaining that last sliver of humanity and hopefulness, which is far more powerful and significant than revenge. Ellie’s final memory with Joel is a key reminder of her ability to forgive, despite the hatred – to move past the self-destruction and anger, in hopes of retaining an essence of her former and to rebuild what was lost. It is this sense of forgiveness and redemption that ultimately saves both Ellie and Abby, allowing Ellie to finally remember Joel in a warm, nurturing light. The act of sparring Abby is inherently the more difficult, yet empathetic choice, cultivating a poignant sense of reconciliation and rehabilitation, all of which propels Ellie towards a path of redemption.
The pacing of the story and ability to connect with Abby would have been better if Naughty Dog told Abby’s story first or went back and forth between Abby and Ellie as opposed to the hard switch in the middle.
Abby’s development in character growth and redemption, and our ability to empathize with her would have been hindered by the abrupt interjection of Ellie segments. It was imperative to give players enough dedicated time to empathize with Abby and her surroundings, and temporarily dissociate ourselves from Ellie. Slowly developing an empathetic view towards these characters was a horrifying realization given our prior actions as Ellie, having the player question their own values of revenge and righteousness.
It was also important for the player to associate themselves with Ellie in the beginning, as we share her sense of rage and animosity – given our connection to Joel – , gladly murdering Abby’s friends and any WLFs that stand in our way, slowly losing ourselves to the madness. The impact of our actions were far more harrowing after we began to empathize with characters we initially hated and brutally murdered. This unsettling effect of reflection, realization, and confliction was only made possible through these dedicated character segments. Our resolve is tested by the time of the theatre confrontation as we have a dedicated understanding of each character; this concious flip in understanding and perspective is far more significant and ambitious given our previous inability to accept or acknowledge Abby.
Abby is a terrible, evil character and Naughty Dog forcing the player to control her is intolerable.
Through the hard character switch at its halfway point, we realize how much of a monster Ellie (the player as well) has become. We see that Abby is a survivor like any other, suffering from her own grief and loss. We initially reject her and her companions, but slowly empathize with them as the story unfolds and their relationships are brought to light. We realize these people – while not good – are not inherently evil either. We see Abby regain fragments of her humanity through her selfless acts for Lev and Yara, and even try to reconcile her relationship with Owen and Mel, simply trying to make things right. The different shades to these characters remove our tunneled vision, painfully reminding us that there are always different perspectives to a story. We are left feeling uncomfortable and arguably disgusted with Ellie’s actions, struggling with what felt justified a few hours ago. We can also see, from a numbers comparison, that Ellie has taken far more from Abby than the reverse, with Abby even sparring her life twice – at this point, Abby has only killed Joel while Ellie killed Mel (and her unborn baby), Owen, Nora, and dozens of her friends in the WLF. Ellie killing Abby would be the most detrimental outcome, continuously feeding into the cycle of violence, hate, and self destruction. Abby’s death would bring no sense of resolution to the destructive consequences of Ellie’s decisions. Abby’s redemption arc and her protective relationship with Lev and Yara also show the depth and empathetic value of her character, and essentially goes through the same development path as Joel in part one. Abby has found new purpose in her life and is absolutely looking to put the past behind her but Ellie is the one that continues to instigate this festering role of hate, even threatening to kill Lev.
The Last of Us Part II’s greatest achievement is the duality between its two leads and how effectively, albeit unexpectedly, it sways your perception and sense of empathy. It capitalizes on this brilliant sense of emotional struggle and turmoil, having players question the essence of right and wrong. It’s an enthralling narrative about perspective, that challenges your own views on justice and empathy.
Issues with the LGBTQ inclusions.
For anyone who felt the inclusion of LGBTQ elements did not “serve the story” or felt unjustified: there has never been a need to justify the inclusion of heterosexual relationships in video games, so why would Ellie being a lesbian or Lev identifying as male be any different? The character’s sexuality or identification should not have to be justified or serve a purpose, they are allowed to simply exist. The conversation should be directed to determine if these elements were handled in a respectful manner.
What does the final shot represent?
The final shot of Ellie leaving behind her guitar highlights her willingness to move forward and forgive despite the pain and loss. It signifies the cost of obsession and addiction, and the self-destructive path that follows. She not only loses Joel, but the connection that tied them together. Despite this harrowing display of reflection, she still presses forward towards the light, with the uncertain hope to slowly recover what she lost along the way. Some people interpret this as Ellie heading down an unknown path and putting the past behind her, while I have seen others express the notion of forgiveness and Ellie returning to Jackson in hopes that Dina can try to forgive her, in a similar light that Ellie did for Joel and Abby. She finally escapes that cycle of hate and violence that kept her a prisoner in the darkness for so long. It is extraordinarily bittersweet and thematically fits with the conventions established in the original The Last of Us.
Criticism I understand/agree with.
Two particular criticisms that are more difficult to defend would be The Last of Us Part II’s false marketing and the unconventional plot structure. I firmly believe the narrative was presented in this format to illicit a mirrored sense of hatred and animosity for Ellie and the player, which would later result in an intentional realization of disgust and discomfort. This layer of discomfort and reflection is far more poignant due to the proper development of Abby and dissecting the narrative into a different format would hinder this. Regardless, the character switch does evoke an abrupt interjection to the narrative’s crescendo; the added layer of flashbacks also contribute to its jarring nature. While I understand Naughty Dog’s decision to mislead consumers with the game’s marketing – especially given the entertainment industry’s reliance on spoiler heavy trailers – it does feel a little disingenuous and leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. I am certain Naughty Dog had good intentions with this decision, and while I was not bothered by its misleading nature, I can understand the frustration of the general populace.
While not related to criticism, I also wanted to take a moment to express the brilliance and beauty of Ellie’s cover of Take on Me. It rivaled the mesmerizing nature of Part I’s giraffe scene. Hearing the pain and each melancholic break in Ellie’s voice, as she softly recited each blissful melody, was equally heartbreaking as it was hauntingly beautiful.
As I stated in my review, The Last of Us Part II is a divisive title that encourages discussion and reflection. The game is by no means perfect and you are absolutely allowed to not like the story or direction Part II took, but I just wanted to express my thoughts and interpretations of many common criticisms in hopes of providing a new light in perspective. I have not had to sit down and reflect on so many thematic elements and personal values instilled from a video game before and I hope this profound experience evoked some form of emotion from you.